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Vice-Chancellor news

REF, Civic Mission, single-use plastics

30 May 2022

Dear colleague

The stand-out event this month was, of course, the long-awaited result of the 2021 Research Excellence Framework (REF), in which we were aiming to achieve 12th place overall for Research Power. As you know in fact we achieved 14th, having been pipped by a hairsbreadth for 13th place by Glasgow University, whose achievement, of course, we salute. I wrote to you about this earlier in the month explaining why we are very happy with this outcome, so I won’t repeat what I said then. One thing I would add is that the REF results constitute a complex, multidimensional dataset that can be interpreted in many different ways to justify a range of arguments, and we will doubtless be far from alone in declaring our result to be a positive one. Every institution, lobbying group or subject association that wishes to make a case for itself will find something helpful in the data, even if ingenious analysis or rigorous spotlighting are required. That said, I have no doubt whatsoever that whether in terms of funding or reputation, we can be pleased and proud of our achievement. But beyond that, the exercise does provide useful pointers for the future: helping colleagues to maximise their success in terms of publications and other research outputs is the evident priority. The next phase of our research strategy will need to focus on providing the right kind of supportive environment for our researchers, along with guidance on how to succeed, especially for those in the early phase of their career. Our strategy since 2014 has been one of support and inclusivity, and we have learned much along the way that we can successfully deploy as we look forward to 2028.

REF is a long game, and so is that other key element of our strategy, Civic Mission. The month of May saw two key milestones in the fulfilment of our ambitions in this respect. On Saturday 21 May the public launch, or grand opening, of the Grange Pavilion took place. The new, much bigger replacement Pavilion is the centrepiece of the Community Gateway Project led by Professor Mhairi McVicar of the School of Architecture. One of our original Way Forward Flagship Engagement Projects, the Community Gateway is a stand-out example of how it is possible, by working with the local community and making Civic Mission part of the University strategy, to engage schools, local agencies and above all members of our local communities in working together to make real change and improvements that benefit all. The £1.8m of National Lottery Funding that the Community Gateway team raised to design and build the new facilities quite rightly did not come to or through the University, but there can be no question that under Mhairi’s leadership, we were able to support the process and help make a reality of what would otherwise have been a dauntingly difficult prospect. On the day, over a thousand people from Grangetown and beyond came together to celebrate the achievement, and the following week the University Executive Board met there so that everybody in the University leadership team is aware of the importance and scale of the facilities and activities. The building itself has won two awards from the Royal Society of Architects in Wales for bringing meaningful change to the Grangetown community, and both Cardiff City Council and the Welsh Government recognise its importance. These kinds of external recognition are important, but the acid test must always be the views of the local community, which remains wholly committed and enthusiastic.

Later in the month we held our first-ever annual Civic Mission day at sbarc | spark, our superb new innovation building on the Maindy Campus. sbarc | spark is designed to ignite new, serendipitous connections by bringing people together in surroundings conducive to breaking down barriers and encouraging cross-fertilisation. The programme for the day made it clear not only that we are continuing in the tradition of the university settlement movement, whereby universities in the late 19th century reached out to their local communities to work in partnership with them to address problems of society, but that the cross-fertilisation we hoped for is already happening. I mentioned in my last email the success of the Caer Heritage project, which has not only facilitiated the building of another new community centre, this time in the Caerau and Ely area of Cardiff, but is co-operating with similar hillfort archeology projects elsewhere. We also see the example of the Pharmabees project, led by the indefatigable Professor Les Baillie, working with other civic mission projects and a range of schools and agencies. In the end the reason for pursuing excellent research and teaching is to provide benefit to society, and through our Civic Mission we both make that a tangible reality and demonstrate clearly to the world the success of our efforts in this respect.

Before moving to my next point, I want to acknowledge the constructive and helpful manner in which the local branch of the University and College Union came to a negotiated agreement with the University to call off the industrial action that would otherwise have been taking place for the remainder of the academic year. I am sure all of us are both pleased and relieved that our students will be able to complete their studies, progress and graduate as planned. For the graduating cohort in particular it has been a very difficult three years and it is positive indeed that they will not have that further worry to deal with.

As covid recedes, the Welsh Government having now removed all remaining restrictions, we will remain watchful rather than complacent, in case the position worsens again. However, now seems a good time to remind ourselves of other critical matters affecting the whole world. We retain a strong focus on climate change and our commitment to net zero, but we also must re-affirm our commitment to removing single-use plastic from the campus to the extent possible. The requirement during covid to use throwaway items in areas such as catering, and masks of course, did temporarily blunt our ambition, but new research from Cardiff University reminds us starkly of the urgency of this matter. Pollution through nano-scale micro plastics poses a huge threat to our ecosystems and to our health, and indeed some see this threat as of a similar scale to that of climate change. One of the biggest problems is that the pollutants are so vanishingly small that  99% of them remain unlocated, even if a wander through Cardiff city centre or along the banks of the Taff will readily reveal a huge range of larger scale plastic waste. Work undertaken in the new Nanoscale Vibrational Spectroscopy facility in our equally new Translational Research Hub on the Innovation Campus has resulted in the very first images of nanoscale plastic pollutants. Dr Josh Davies-Jones of the Cardiff Catalysis Institute explains the detail, but in essence these tiny particles are formed from the breakdown of larger plastic items, are 70 times smaller than the diameter of human hair and very difficult to study for that reason. Study them we must, however, for these particles not only end up in food and thus in our bodies and those of many organisms, but they can absorb other pollutants that are then conveyed into us. Being able to image and analyse plastic nano particles will be an important way of helping us combat their effects. All of us at Cardiff University can do our part by removing single-use plastics from campus to the extent possible, thus making it more difficult for them to enter the environment in the first place. If we can establish such practices as standard, it may have wider ripple effects to reduce plastic use, which must be the overall aim.

At the end of this month Professor Kim Graham leaves us to take up her new role as Provost at the University of Edinburgh. We have been very lucky to have Kim as Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research, Innovation and Enterprise for the last three years, and in particular to have had the benefit of her energy, commitment, attention to detail and strategic vision during REF 2021. She has done an outstanding job right across her brief and I want to offer our heartfelt thanks for everything she has done for Cardiff University. Her new role as Provost at Edinburgh is going to be exciting and demanding, and Kim is very much to be congratulated on having secured it. I want to wish Kim the very best of luck and I know that she will continue to achieve ever greater success.

Finally, many of you will already know that I will be retiring from my post as Vice-Chancellor when I complete my second term on 31 July 2023. At the age of 64 and after 16 years as a Vice-Chancellor, eleven of them at Cardiff, I will be ready to step back from the fray. Until that point, of course, I shall remain committed and focussed on my role and on the needs of the University. It’s important that I confirm this now because a committee of Council and Senate must be assembled in order to begin the search for a successor, which is rather a long process. Of course I will say more towards the end of next academic year, but in the meantime it’s business as usual.

With best wishes

Colin Riordan